How necessary is training to failure?

written by Philip Stefanov  |  MARCH 7, 2023

The myth that we must train to failure for optimal results is not new. It’s been around for decades and exists in different forms. The most popular variation is, “You’re leaving gains on the table by not training to failure, bro.”

This week’s newsletter explores why it’s not mandatory to train to failure, how it can be bad, some potential benefits, and practical applications.

Let’s talk about it.

You’re Sort of Leaving Gains On The Table

Taking a set to failure will always be more stimulative and cause a stronger adaptive response than leaving reps in the tank. By that logic, stopping short of failure means you’re not stimulating your muscles as intensely as possible.

The problem is that we cannot look at our training in isolation, “The current set I’m doing is the only one that matters! 100 percent focus!”

Doing so would be comparable to running a marathon and only caring about your performance during the first mile. That first mile is part of the marathon, and we could argue that it matters a lot, but it makes up only 3.82 percent of the whole thing. True success requires good pacing and careful consideration of how your choices now affect your performance later.

The same is true for weight training. You can always focus on doing your best at the moment, but that wouldn’t be a good long-term strategy.

What you do now will always affect your performance down the road, so you must ask yourself, “What is the best training approach that will provide a strong enough stimulus now without hindering my performance later.”

The Problem With Training to Failure

As mentioned above, training to failure is the best way to ensure you’re providing the strongest possible stimulus right now. Pushing yourself to your limits disrupts homeostasis and forces a strong adaptive response, resulting in progress.

Unfortunately, doing so is also incredibly demanding on the body and mind. Even one set taken to failure can significantly impact your ability to recover and do more productive training later.

Here is how that might look in a practical setting for a trainee doing the bench press:

  • Set 1 - 12 reps (to failure)
  • Set 2 - 8-9 reps (close to failure)
  • Set 3 - 6 reps (close to failure)
  • Set 4 - 3-5 reps (close to failure)

Anyone who has trained hard for any length of time can agree with this estimation because taking sets to failure is incredibly draining. You might do 2, 3, or even 5 extra reps, but that will come at a cost.

Now, here is an example of how a trainee’s performance might look if they stop short of failure:

  • Set 1 - 9 reps
  • Set 2 - 9 reps
  • Set 3 – 8-9 reps
  • Set 4 - 7-9 reps

These sets might not go exactly that way because numerous factors (glycogen stores, rest between sets, etc.) affect performance, but you get an idea. Pushing to failure or close to failure on all sets would result in 29-32 reps, whereas stopping before that point would allow for more reps: 33-36.

Good Training Is About Good Pacing

Anyone can put together a demanding training program that causes a strong enough stimulus to drive muscle growth. Even someone with a few weeks of training experience can enter the gym and do a bunch of exercises they know of, taking all sets close to failure.

The problem is that such an approach generally doesn’t work in the long run because training too hard now will likely affect your performance later.

Because of that, the goal should be to do enough stimulative training to promote progress without tipping over into overtraining territory.

One way to pace yourself better is to manage your fatigue on a set-to-set basis by steering clear of failure training. Instead, leave one to three reps in the tank on most sets. That way, you train your muscles adequately without causing too much unnecessary fatigue.

With that said, training to failure can be helpful from time to time. An obvious reason to do so would be to learn what training to failure actually is if you’re newer to weight training. How would you learn to gauge your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) if you’ve never actually pushed yourself to your limits?

Similarly, taking the correct set to failure could bring extra benefits without affecting your performance. For example:

  • The last set for a muscle group
  • Near the end of a workout, when doing isolation exercises
  • Scheduled AMRAP sets

Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,


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